TORONTO–One of the warmest, most winning crowd-pleasers at the Toronto International Film Festival, which closes Sunday, has been “Pride,” a stirring political-historical drama that revisits 1980s Great Britain, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sought to break the century-old trade union movement, embroiling the country’s coal miners in a painfully protracted strike.
“Pride,” written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus, resurrects a little-known chapter from the period, when in 1984 a group of gay men and lesbians called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners raised funds, marched and organized on behalf of the strike; after having their contributions repeatedly turned down by the National Union of Mineworkers, they finally found a small community in South Wales that was willing to accept their financial and moral support. “Pride,” which stars Dominic West, Bill Nighy, Andrew Scott and Paddy Considine, casts a mostly rosy glow on the era, giving the unlikely political partnership a let’s-put-on-a-show brio worthy of Mickey Rooney.
That part is largely accurate, says Jonathan Blake, the gay activist played by West. Recalling his group’s decision to help the miners – a population not particularly known for embracing homosexuality – he said the reasoning was clear. “Having forever been sort of harassed by the police and harassed by authority, we knew some of how the miners must be feeling as they were isolated and vilified,” Blake said in Toronto this week. “So it felt like the natural thing to want to support them.” Trying to offer that support, he recalled, “was never easy.” But once they were introduced to the denizens of Onllwyn he says, “We were just welcomed with open arms. … It was just extraordinary.”
Although “Pride” ends with the miners’ defeat, it also ends on a note of triumph, as the mineworkers’ union introduces a plank supporting gay civil rights to the Labor Party platform. Hovering in the background throughout the film is the specter of HIV and AIDS, which was just coming into public consciousness in the mid-1980s. Blake was one of the first men in Great Britain to be diagnosed with HIV. The first time he saw “Pride,” he says, was difficult. “I was very aware of all the people who are no longer with us, and that all came welling up. So I needed to see it a second time, where I could just sit back and take it for what it was.”
Between “Pride” and fellow Toronto favorite “The Imitation Game” – in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays the scientist Alan Turing, whose research into early computer technology helped break Nazi military codes during World War II and who committed suicide in 1954 after being arrested for being homosexual – viewers could be forgiven for wondering just how many generations of gifted leaders, innovators and creative forces have been lost to the forces of fear, hatred and homophobia. And both films come on the heels of “The Normal Heart,” Ryan Murphy’s HBO film that powerfully evoked the political paralysis and unfathomable loss of AIDS in the 1980s.
Warchus says that perhaps it’s only now that these stories can finally be accommodated culturally. “It’s interesting, it’s kind of like pop culture is the last thing to move,” he says, adding that he’d wanted to make the film for 20 years before a production company would get behind it. After directing “Simpatico” in 1999, he says, he signed on to a few other projects, which he dropped or pulled out of in order to do “Pride.” “All the producers said, ‘You’re going to do the gay miner thing? What are you doing that for?’ Like it was a bad career move.”
It looks like he’ll have the last laugh: “Pride” has been hugely popular with preview and festival audiences, and so far promises to have crossover potential, even with conservative viewers. “So now, of course, the cynical businessmen and heads of [studios] are all looking for the next big gay miner thing,” Warchus says.
Beresford pipes in: “I remember having a meeting with development executives after ‘The King’s Speech’ where somebody said to me directly, were there any other kings who were disabled?” The group breaks into laughter. “People now will be saying, ‘Did any gays do anything else with welders? Find them! Get me lesbians and road sweepers now!’”
“Pride” opens in Washington on Oct. 10.